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Where Fairytales become Real

Where Fairytales become Real

December 13, 2004

While the rest of the world was enchanted by the 1952 Hans Christian Andersen movie starring Danny Kaye, in Denmark it was a colossal flop.

The Danes take their beloved father of fairytales seriously and, for them, the Hollywood movie strode too far from the facts.

With a major bicentennial celebration of Hans Christian Andersen starting next year, this is a fine time to visit Denmark to uncover the real story of this much-loved author.

You’ll find traces of Andersen (casually referred to by the Danes as “Ho Se Anersen”) everywhere.

First stop on the Andersen-trail is Odense, where he was born on April 2, 1805, the son of a poor shoemaker who died when Hans Christian was 11.

The town is the capital of Denmark’s second largest island, Funen, known as the garden of Denmark for its changing landscapes, rolling hills and gentle beech woods. Walking Odense’s cobblestone streets, past the colourful houses bending under the weight of centuries, it is easy to imagine the young Andersen trudging slowly to the factory where he went to work after his father’s death, dreaming of fame and fortune in Copenhagen.

The Hans Christian Andersen Museum, in Odense’s old town, is built around the home Andersen was born in. Today it houses everything from his intricate paper-cuttings and original manuscripts to his stovepipe, black top hat and a life-size replica of his large feet.

At 1.83m (six feet) Andersen towered above his contemporaries. With a large nose, small eyes, big feet and a gawky body he was not known for his good looks, more like the ugly duckling than Prince Charming.

Odense has expanded since Andersen’s day but retains its picturesque charm, and celebrates its world-famous son with museums, statues, a Hans Christian Andersen Christmas parade and regular performances of his fairytales.

On the outskirts of town is the Funen Village, an open-air museum where you can experience how life was two centuries ago. The village was recreated with authentic houses brought from all over Funen, with the typical half-timbered constructions, gardens with profusions of flowers, a windmill, slum houses, animals and a number of farm activities.

Funen is also renowned for its fresh cheese and other fresh produce, including a delicious pure apple juice.

Of course another popular Danish beverage is beer and, from everything I’ve heard, Andersen enjoyed good beer and wine.

Funen’s Refsvindinge Brewery is one of Denmark’s smallest and oldest breweries. Its famous No 16 brew was voted Europe’s best beer and is still sold out of a small storeroom at the back of the brewery.

My favourite brew was Jordbaerbryg, a Pilsner infused with succulent Funen fresh strawberries, producing a light beer with a distinct and refreshing taste, unlike any beer I’ve tried.

The most famous Danish beer is Carlsberg – available in more than 150 countries – and if you need an excuse to drink it then try the fact that profits are pumped into cultural activities, including paying for Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid statue, based on one of Andersen’s stories.

But the Carlsberg foundations were not available to help when Andersen, at the age of 14, fled from his village home to the bright lights of Copenhagen hoping for fame in the theatre.

Luckily for those who love his stories he failed, because it was only after five years of trying unsuccessfully to make it as an actor, dancer or singer that he finally turned to writing … and the rest is history.

The penniless teenager was a frequent visitor to the soaring Round Tower, where someone who felt sorry for him let him borrow books from its library. The Round Tower, in the centre of the old city, still offers one of the best views of Copenhagen.

That view reveals a city centre largely unchanged from Andersen’s day. All the houses he lived in remain; the Royal Theatre that was at the centre of his world is still home to Denmark’s leading opera, theatre and ballet companies, and many of the cafes he visited still serve coffee.

Meandering along the Strget, a long, paved pedestrian street in the centre of Copenhagen he would have known well, and peering into the many speciality and designer stores, you can’t help but be infused with a certain fairytale enchantment in the air.

What stimulates the heart and passion better than fine chocolate? One of the city’s oldest patisseries, La Glace, creates chocolate sensations that entice the palate. You can even have fairytale cakes named after 12 of Andersen’s most famous fairytales or one named after Andersen.

Andersen would surely have appreciated the compliment, because he enjoyed good eating and at one point lived above, and frequented, Cafa Porta, near the theatre.

The food the cafes serve today is still highly traditional. Veal, marinated reindeer, meatballs, fish, eel or roast pork with local variations of vegetables are popular for dinner.

A Danish lunch speciality is smrrebrd, an open sandwich, generally on rye bread and topped with herring, raw beef, seafood or egg. Chase it all down with a shot of iced schnapps and you’re on the way to achieving local status.

The prevalence of fish on any menu is a reminder that Denmark is a seafaring country and Copenhagen a water-bound city whose beauty is best viewed on a canal cruise where you can sail past the new Opera House, Amalienborg Palace (the royal family’s winter palace) and the Little Mermaid perched on her rock.

Cruises leave regularly from Nyhavn, a trendy area bustling with live music and outdoor cafes, where Andersen lived for many years in building number 67.

As he grew older Andersen spent much time travelling round Europe and developed an ambivalent attitude to Denmark, but it nevertheless remained the inspiration for his stories.

With Europe’s oldest monarchy, Denmark has an abundance of dazzling castles, each the perfect setting for a fairytale. At the moment, the most enticing are the Brockdorf Palace, in the royal compound of Amalienborg, and The Chancellery House at the Fredensborg Palace, in North Zealand, which are the official residences of Crown Prince Frederik and his Australian princess, the former Mary Donaldson.

While I was there – and, if I’m honest, much of the time I was in Denmark – my thoughts often drifted to the new Crown Princess.

The young woman from Tasmania met her prince in a Sydney bar, they married and now live in a palace, and in my book that’s a bona fide fairytale.

You can tour Fredensborg if the royal family is away or watch the impressive changing of the guard ceremony if they are at home. One wing of the Amalienborg complex is open to the public in summer and you can see royal apartments used by three generations of the monarchy.

The royal family often takes summer holidays in Grasten Castle, on the Jutland peninsula, which is thought to be where Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Match Girl when he stayed there in 1845.

The impressive Kronborg Castle on the windy shore of Helsingor – said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet – also made an impression on Andersen who wrote of the national hero Holger sleeping in the dungeon ready to wake if danger threatened Denmark.

The Danes have a long tradition of interest in folklore. The current monarch, Queen Margrethe II, illustrated Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in Danish. An accomplished artist, the Queen has also designed Christmas seals for Unicef, postage stamps and the settings and costumes for one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales performed at the Tivoli amusement gardens.

Andersen is reputed to have been among the crowd when the Tivoli opened in 1843, and was inspired to write one of his most famous fairy tales, The Nightingale, by a performance he saw there.

The park hasn’t changed much. By day its gardens, rides, games and restaurants perform for the pleasure of its many visitors; by night it glows with thousands of coloured lights and the romance of decades gone by.

Although he based himself largely in Copenhagen, Andersen never owned a house, instead renting rooms in boarding houses or hotels or staying with friends. Towards the end of his life he spent much time as a guest of the Melchior family in their house, Rolighed, near Copenhagen, and it was there he died on August 4, 1875.

The great storyteller is buried at Assistens Cemetery, a beautiful, relaxed park much used by locals as a place to stroll or rest.

Originally he shared the burial plot with his friends Edvard and Henriette Collin. But around 1920 a public controversy arose about the Collins’ relationship with Andersen and their descendants had Edvard and Henriette’s tombstone moved to the family plot.

His memory, needless to say, lives on in the stories read by millions of children around the world, but it lingers most strongly in the country of his birth.

There is no denying Denmark has a magic sparkle. It is a land where fun, folklore and fairytales dance from the pages of history, a land where Hans Christian Andersen is a national hero.

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